If the Los Angeles Lakers' 2019-20 season was a reboot, this one is a sequel: Co-stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis reprise their roles, and the rest of the cast is a mix of old and new. This is a case of the talent-rich getting talent-richer, and expectations will be even higher this time around.
James won his first championship in 2012 on a team that shifted shapes throughout the playoffs. By the end of the Miami Heat's title run, they'd shifted Chris Bosh to center, next to James and Shane Battier. That was the first year of Erik Spoelstra's pace-and-space offense, but they didn't perfect it until they tweaked the personnel. Miami went from sixth to first in offensive rating in 2012-13, thanks to the additions of Ray Allen, Chris Andersen and Rashard Lewis. Shortly after Anderson signed, the Heat won 27 straight games.
That 2012-13 season is arguably the best of James' career. That's the year in which he thinks Marc Gasol stole Defensive Player of the Year from him, and he shot a career-high 40.6 percent from 3-point range. He and Dwyane Wade had an internal efficiency competition, and he finished the season averaging 25.5 points on 64 percent true shooting, with an increase in assisted baskets, a decrease in midrange jumpers and better spacing. Everything clicked. The game has never looked easier for him.
Once again, James is entering his third season with his new team, fresh off a championship, armed with reinforcements. With Gasol, Dennis Schroder and Montrezl Harrell in the fold, he should be able to get more assisted baskets and more rest. There is no longer any reason for the offense to collapse when James goes to the bench, and there is no longer any excuse for it to devolve into stagnant iso-ball when he's on the court. The champs would have surely preferred a longer offseason, but this roster is ready for Showtime.
Taking the temperature
Lakers believer: The Lakers deserve another trophy for how they ran circles around their competition in free agency. You're not supposed to be able to add an All-Defense-caliber center and the players who finished first and second in Sixth Man of the Year voting when you don't have cap space and you've already traded away most of your future first-round picks. These are the perks of being the Lakers and having LeBron. Unbelievable.
Lakers skeptic: You're right: Marc and Montrezl gave the Lakers discounts, and this is definitely a more talented roster than it was last season. But is it a better one? Neither of those guys was impressive the last time we saw them in the playoffs, and that's the time of year when the Lakers will be judged. Replacing Danny Green on the cheap with Wesley Matthews sounds pretty good, but it'll only really pay off if Schroder can replicate the best season of his career. I am not convinced that is likely.
Lakers believer: If you are seriously down on the Lakers because of how their new centers played in the playoffs in the bubble, then I'd like to introduce you to my friend Recency Bias. You'll find that he's always around when you fire off a terrible take. Anyway, yes, I'm sure this roster is better. The Lakers were 11th in offense last season, 17th in the halfcourt and much worse than that with LeBron on the bench. Overcoming their predictability and iffy spacing would have been a difficult feat to pull off twice in a row.
If they hadn't signed Gasol, then I might share your opinion that these signings were more impressive in terms of value than in terms of how much they actually help the team. But they did sign Gasol, a future Hall of Famer who thinks the game as quickly as anybody and is an absolute gift to Frank Vogel. His passing and shooting will open up so many possibilities in the halfcourt. Don't overthink this.
Lakers skeptic: You know Gasol turns 36 next month, right? I love his game as much as the next guy -- LeBron's wrong, the right man won DPOY in 2013 -- but you must at least acknowledge the possibility that his underwhelming postseason performance is evidence of real decline. I'm not confident his body will hold up after this abbreviated offseason, and I prefer my stretch bigs to shoot 3s with more conviction.
Gasol is more than worth a shot on a minimum contract. I'm just not sure that he's the missing piece for this offense, the way he was for the Toronto Raptors a couple of years ago. LeBron has basically played the same style since he left Miami, and I'll believe that the Lakers are going to run a bunch of stuff through Gasol at the high post when I see it. I worry that he won't have as much fun when he's standing around and watching LeBron orchestrate every possession, and I worry that the team will miss the offensive rebounding and vertical spacing that walked out the door.
Lakers believer: Gasol is not going to throw down alley-oops like Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee did, but he wouldn't have done that 10 years ago, either. If you are focusing on vertical spacing and offensive rebounding instead of this massive infusion of playmaking, then you're probably concern-trolling.
And I reject the notion that Gasol, at any age, would have any sort problem playing with LeBron. They'll get along swimmingly because of their big, beautiful basketball brains.
Lakers skeptic: There was indeed a massive infusion of playmaking, an infusion that might not matter all that much in the postseason. I trust Playoff Rondo more than I trust Schroder, and when the Lakers need to be at their best on both ends, I don't expect Schroder or Harrell to be on the floor. Gasol might not be, either, since playing Davis at 5 is such a game-changer.
Lakers believer: The Lakers have 72 regular-season games to play before their crunch-time lineups matter, and in that time they can play around with all sorts of combinations. These new weapons allow the coaching staff to make this team as versatile offensively as it is defensively, and in this case the strengths of Schroder and Harrell seem much more significant than their weaknesses. The luxury of having Davis, James and Gasol on the team is that it is not particularly difficult to hide a weak defender, even in the playoffs.
Beyond that, I probably don't have to explain why it is a good idea to reduce LeBron's load in his age-36 season after the quickest turnaround of his career.
Eye on: Talen Horton-Tucker
In Game 4 of the Lakers' second-round series against the Houston Rockets, a 19-year-old rookie checked into the game, seemingly out of nowhere. He was productive in his seven minutes, earning himself 10 more in the clincher a couple of days later. Los Angeles went away from small ball once it was done with the Rockets, though, and he didn't make another appearance.
Talen Horton-Tucker is 20 now, and he's intriguing precisely because he is the kind of player Vogel could throw out there against the Rockets. He stands 6-foot-4, but his 7-1 wingspan is longer than LeBron's and he's strong enough to defend bigger players. It won't be easy to crack this rotation, but over the course of the season he's bound to get a chance to play. If he can knock down a decent amount of his open looks, then you might see him in the playoffs again.